Poor Tina. All she wants is to be the perfect big fish to Kaylee, the nerdy fourth grader placed under her weeklong tutelage. That surely isn’t that much to ask, right? Right!? Yet that just isn’t going to happen, as the two utterly fail to hit it off. “A Fish Called Tina” gives us a good old-fashioned descent into madness story for the eldest Belcher, one in which the only person who really gets hurt is Tina herself—well, her and the floor of Mr. Frond’s office. It would be scary watching Tina lose it like this if we couldn’t feel so confident that her cockamamie plans to force bonding with Kaylee wouldn’t end as they do, with her spilling chili all over her shirt and dousing herself with a shaken-up soda. Tina is bad at being a good big fish, as this episode makes painfully clear, but at least she’s also bad at being a bad big fish as well.
“A Fish Called Tina” is a solid episode. It fits squarely into the category of Bob’s Burgers story where the main plot is literally only important to the person at its center, as Tina alone cares about proving herself the perfect mentor. We’ve seen meltdown episodes like this many times—“Burgerboss” is an early classic in that category—and episodes like that tend to be best when the featured character’s pointless obsession dovetails with other characters’ marginally more normal pursuits. In that earlier episode, that took the form of Bob’s gaming obsession colliding with the kids’ desire to crash parties and Linda’s dream of joining the yacht club. Here, no one else especially wants anything beyond getting through the week, so there’s a lot of backing away slowly and letting Tina spiral before Louise finally steps up. That’s still a decent formula, but it doesn’t hit the comedic highs of the show when it’s willing to get a little wilder and more cacophonous.
There’s still a lot to enjoy, and a big part of the fun of this episode lies in its recognizing a simple fact of the show’s world-building: We have met a lot of eighth graders and a lot of fourth graders, so why not pair a bunch of them up and see what happens? So we get Arnold, the tiny karate enthusiast voiced by Damon Wayons Jr., bonding over high fives with Jimmy Jr. and helping his big fish grow in ways he couldn’t have expected. We get Regular-Sized Rudy wondering within about a half-hour whether he and Zeke might be soulmates. We get Harley, not the brightest bulb in the fourth grade, paired with Jocelyn, who makes the former look like a genius by comparison. “A Fish Called Tina” can only spend so much time on any of these threads, as the focus remains on the Belchers with Tina and her little fish Kaylee and, to a much lesser extent, Louise and her big fish Tammy.
But all these quick-hit jokes work because the show has built enough familiarity with those characters that these particular interactions don’t need much to land gags. Even with a recent addition to the ensemble like Arnold, Jimmy Jr. is such a bighearted doofus that it instantly makes sense he would bond with this little kid. Zeke and Rudy make such perfectly absurd sense together, a pair with completely different backgrounds and dispositions yet who are united in their hidden depths and desire to see the good in everything and everyone—they also both have some vague unresolved thing with the respective Belcher sister in their grade, if we’re charting all possible parallels. It makes sense they would hit it off then, and generally it makes sense that Zeke specifically would end up being presented as the good contrast to Tina’s flailing efforts as a big fish. While Tina is obsessed with creating the perfect experience just as she remembered it four years ago with Madison, Zeke can’t help but go with the flow and be his spontaneous, irrepressible self. Lesson for us all there, really.
While she doesn’t get as much to do as her sister, Louise is handled well here, as it remains a simple thrill to see her act not like just a little kid. Her efforts to help Tammy fool her cousin that she’s in the Caribbean are better than what Tammy herself would have come up with, but that’s not a high bar. The sunward shot from the sandy beach is pretty good, but it’s only after completing the snorkeling photo shoot that Louise realizes the fish are upside down—and she never seems to clock that Tammy apparently went swimming in her regular clothes. This relatively normal behavior from Louise makes it all the more effective at the end where she grabs the mic and tells her sister the truth she needs to hear: Tina has been an amazing big fish to her all these years, and if Kaylee isn’t interested in that, that’s as much her loss as it is anything to do with Tina. That’s a worthwhile lesson, one that actually hits with greater impact because the episode waits until the very end to articulate it. Kaylee isn’t under any obligation to hit it off with Tina, but that can simply be because they weren’t a good fit instead of anything being wrong with either of them.
More generally, “A Fish Called Tina” is a good illustration of how Bob’s Burgers has developed its storytelling muscles to avoid an episode like this getting mean-spirited. Yes, Tina loses all perspective on what this week was supposed to be, and she fails again and again to take the hint that Kaylee just isn’t interested in having a fish-to-fish relationship with her. The episode doesn’t shy away from the fact that she’s being ridiculous, but the key thing is that she wasn’t wrong to want that kind of connection with Kaylee in the first place. The scene where she seeks out her old big fish Madison at Caboose Kabob. A grimmer version of this episode would give us a Madison who doesn’t remember Tina or anything about their time together, or perhaps even a Madison who reveals she never cared about being a big fish and thinks the whole thing is stupid. But, nope, Madison is just a normal, still kind high school senior who is a little too intent on asking customers what she can put in their caboose. She gives good, honest advice, and it’s not on her that Tina is too far gone to listen.
“A Fish Called Tina” ends up illustrating a key idea of Bob’s Burgers: The Belchers are rarely more foolish than when trying to make something perfect happen, and rarely wiser than when they recognize they already have the actual version of what they want. Bob falls into that trap every Thanksgiving, Linda has managed it in all sorts of contexts, and now it’s their elder daughter’s turn. At least her siblings are there for her, even if it takes more office vomit and spilled deception chili than strictly ideal for Tina to realize she’s a great big fish after all.
- Yeah, Bob and Linda’s story gets bumped to the strays this week. Theirs is a really funny, simple story, with Ben Schwartz perfect as a fitness jerk and their next-day soreness all too painfully relatable. Really, their entire saga, from initial excitement about unleashing their muscles to grim realization over the money they’ve wasted, is perfect. This is rich enough material to be a whole episode, but it’s all so brutally recognizable it doesn’t really need any more time devoted to it than this to get across all it needs.
- I appreciate how the episode acknowledges upfront how the whole big and little fish concept excludes a sixth grader like Gene, and then has him crash all the key events anyway by pretending to be an eighth grader, which is to say wearing a tie and saying the word “algebra” a lot.
- Sorry for the extreme lateness—I had a nasty case of writer’s block last night.